Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 October 2017
[P]ublick Good … is the Task of Kings and Princes; whereas private Interest is the Design of Churls and Coblers.Sir George Mackenzie, Moral Gallantry
Recent scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment has tended to view it as a cultural phenomenon that transformed an essentially Humanist focus on civic virtue into an Addisonian concern with politeness and manners in a modern, commercial society. This view is unsatisfactory as a total explanation: it privileges moral philosophy, interpreted almost exclusively as practical moralising, and certain aspects of politics over other academic disciplines and issues. Nonetheless, its focus on the transformation of the language of the civic tradition in eighteenth-century Scotland has proved fruitful and interesting.
It was inevitable that this type of thought should have been used to analyse the lawyers of Scotland, many of whom were prominent in the Enlightenment. Dr Phillipson has accordingly claimed that the Faculty of Advocates (the corporate form of the Scottish Bar) made a bid for the civic leadership of Scotland in the mid-eighteenth century; this is an important refinement of an earlier view that, after 1707, the lawyers came to be seen as “the custodians of Scotland's virtu, the only remaining guardians of those national liberties which were daily threatened by the tightening bonds of the union with England”. Phillipson's argument is interesting, but concedes too much to the overly strong claims formerly made for the Faculty of Advocates as a successor polity to the Scottish Parliament after the Union, found in works such as J G Lockhart's Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk, first published in 1819.5 Phillipson could also be interpreted as suggesting that the members of the Faculty were collectively engaged in politics on a grand scale, which they clearly were not.
The significance of Phillipson's study lies in his stress on three important facts about the Faculty in the eighteenth century. First, the Faculty were indeed concerned about law reform, and many members of the Faculty were individually “preoccupied with the role of men of rank and property in regenerating a backward nation”.